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Lukas Van Ness can fill complementary Za’Darius Smith-type role in Packers defense

Lukas Van Ness accumulated just two years of playing time during his time at Iowa and was never actually an official starter, although he did total nearly 1,000 total snaps in that span. But despite the overall lack of experience, general manager Brian Gutekunst did say that Van Ness will see immediate playing time as a rookie and could fill a similar role to that of Za’Darius Smith when he was with the Green Bay Packers.

One of the more intriguing aspects of Van Ness’ game is his ability to play inside. He began his career at Iowa as an interior defender before spending the bulk of his time lined up outside in 2022. However, the majority of his career snaps at Iowa did come in between the tackles.

The Packers plan to take advantage of Van Ness’ versatility, similarly to what they did with Smith. During the 2019 and 2020 seasons, Smith played just under 200 snaps lined up inside. During his final season with Baltimore in 2018, he had nearly 300 snaps away from the traditional edge rusher alignment.

In most instances with Green Bay, Smith was used in this capacity on obvious passing downs and as a stand-up pass rusher to help get after the quarterback. He would go on to record 164 pressure and 32 sacks during that span.

“He’s a very versatile player, which was important to us,” said Gutkeunst of Van Ness. “He’s a different player than Z was, but he is going to be able to do a lot of the same things as far as we used to move Z inside and rushing. I think his best football is ahead of him. He’s a guy that’s going to move inside and out.”

Both Van Ness and Smith have bigger frames, which the Packers do covet at edge rusher, with Van Ness measuring in at 6-5 and 272 pounds while Smith stood 6-4 and 274 pounds coming out of Kentucky. However, as Gutekunst mentioned, they are different players, and where that is most noticeable in their athletic testing is the speed and agility drills. Van Ness posted elite testing numbers across the board, while Smith did not. Van Ness also has longer arms.

From a measurables standpoint, Van Ness is closer to Rashan Gary, but he comes to the NFL with more experience lining up inside. At Michigan, Gary played roughly 10% of his career snaps along the interior. At the NFL level, he has rarely been used in that role. Although both are terrific athletes, Van Ness can bring a complementary skill set to the Packers’ edge rusher position that they didn’t have in 2022 without Smith. Neither Gary nor Preston Smith have been moved inside all that often.

“They’re a little bit different player, a little bit different body type,” said Gutekunst. “They’re measurables do add up. He’s had a little bit more exposure inside rushing than Rashan did. But they’re both big, fast, powerful long athletes, and I think they’ll complement each other well, along with Preston.”

With Van Ness taking some snaps inside, not only does his presence bolster the edge rusher depth, but he also can provide some needed juice to the interior defensive line position on passing downs. This is a group that is currently short on depth along with experience and has to find a way to be more consistent this season.

One of the quickest ways for this Packers’ defense as a whole to improve is with better play in the trenches. It’s not a coincidence that when the group upfront was at its best in the final weeks of 2022, so was the entire defensive unit. Last season, Green Bay ranked 23rd in total pressures and 28th in yards per carry.

Van Ness will primarily line up at edge rusher from the sounds of it, but he brings some added versatility back to the Packers’ edge rusher room.

“As has been noted throughout this process, I’m a very power-oriented rusher,” said Van Ness. “I feel like using my length to separate from offensive linemen while associated with my power can be very dangerous.“

Story originally appeared on Packers Wire